“Bring all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in My house, and try Me now in this,” says the Lord of hosts, “If I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you such blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it.” Malachi 3:10
When we give to the Church, thinking of it as a charitable organization to which we belong, we might rightly ask, “How much does the Church need? Can I see a financial statement? I want to know how the money is spent, and how much people are paid, before I commit to a stewardship pledge.”
When we give to God from the first fruits of our labor as an act of gratitude in worship, might we look up toward the heavens and ask, “God, how much do you need? How are you going to spend my money?” Would you agree that such questions seem rather inappropriate?
Whose money is my money anyway? Where did I get my money? Is it really mine? What is a steward anyway? Why do we call it stewardship? A steward is a person who manages another’s property; one who administers anything as the agent of another; a person who has charge of the household of another. As a Christian, would it be fair to ask, “Is it my money, or is it God’s money?” We know the answer, but rarely think of our money as God’s money. We rarely think of ourselves as stewards of God’s money, God’s property, God’s assets.
The formula for stewardship giving is not based on the Church’s budget, it’s based on the Biblical principle of tithing from the first fruits of our labor. “The first of the first fruits of thy land thou shalt bring into the house of the Lord thy God” (Exodus 23:19). It needs to be sacrificial – a sacrifice of praise, a sacrifice of faith, a sacrifice of love, a testimony of our priorities in life.
What is the biblical understanding of “first fruits?” It is a tenth of our income, called a tithe. If we are not used to worshipping God with the first fruits of our labor, ten percent may seem like a lot, maybe too much, like “I can’t afford that.” We should be reminded, however, that one hundred percent of our income comes from God, and belongs to God, and we are the stewards of His money, and He commands that we only return ten percent. What bank would issue a loan and only ask that ten percent be paid back? What’s more, God promises to pour out for you such blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it.
My father taught me to tithe at an early age. I had two brothers, and my father would divide the tithe between himself, my mother, and us three sons, and put them into offering envelopes that we would carry with us to Sunday School on Sunday mornings. I learned, whether consciously or unconsciously at a young age, that I was not to go to Church empty-handed. Instead, I was to go prepared to worship God with the tithe, as an act of gratitude and thanksgiving for His watch care over my life.
Even after I left home and went to college, got married and began to raise a family, I never stopped tithing; it had become a part of my life in Christ. Even during difficult financial crises, I would continue to tithe, believing that God would take care of me and my family. I honestly believe that when we tithe, God multiplies the ninety percent to go further than if I had kept the whole hundred percent for myself. Do you remember the story of the multiplication of the five loaves and the two fish? Do you believe that really happened? I do. And I believe that just as the five thousand ate and were filled, with food left over, that our gracious Lord will multiply that ninety percent when we offer ten percent back to Him, in such a way that we cannot understand, to stretch farther than the one hundred percent would have gone.
Ask yourself: “Is my family budget tight? Is my business hurting? Am I worshipping God with a tithe? Father Richard Ballew of blessed memory taught me that there is an invisible string extending from my heart to my wallet in my hip pocket. It reminded me of this passage from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19– 21). Let us take this passage and apply it to the principle of tithing, realizing that our hearts are intricately tied to our money.
Sometimes we may wonder, as a church community, why we aren’t growing, why we aren’t vibrant, why we seem to be stuck in a rut, why people are unhappy, why we can’t do what needs to be done with the church facilities, why we can’t have a fulltime pastor. We say to ourselves, “We need help. We need financial assistance. Why doesn’t somebody help us? Why doesn’t the big church down the way help us? Why doesn’t the Archdiocese help us?”
A priest once announced to his congregation, “I have wonderful news. We have all the money we need!” The faithful breathed a sigh of relief with great joy. “But,” he said, “there is bad news… That money is in your wallet.” Do we really need help? Do we really need financial assistance? Is no one truly willing to help? We have all the money we need; we just need to worship God with our first fruits.
I once had a conversation with man who insisted that the key to Church growth in his community was a full-time priest, and a beautiful new church building. “I know people will come and join the church if we have those two things” he said. I responded, “It’s kind of like the baseball movie Field of Dreams, right? If you build it, they will come.” He said, “Exactly.” I responded again – “I have a different formula: If we tithe, God will build it, and they will come.” He didn’t like that, because he wasn’t tithing and didn’t want to tithe. He wanted someone else to worship God with their money.
Here’s another formula: If we tithe, not if he tithes, or a few people tithe, but if we tithe. God certainly looks into every individual’s heart, but he also looks into the corporate heart of a community. Have you ever heard the phrase “God is no respecter of persons”? In this particular application, I would say that God will not respect just if a few people tithe, but he is looking for the widow’s mite as well. He is looking for a corporate action, a corporate agreement, a corporate act of worship, adoration, and trust.
As a member of the Department of Missions and Evangelism for over twenty years, I have often been asked, “What is the key to church growth?” I don’t know if there is any one key, but I do know where to begin. Church growth begins with a tithing community.
The act of receiving the tithes and offerings of the people should be a prominent feature in our worship services. The Baby Boomer generation got rid of the formality of “passing the plate” during worship services when they created the Jesus Movement churches. This preference for just having an offering box tucked away at the entrance in the back of the church has been adopted by many Christian denominations and even many Orthodox Churches. How can we teach tithing as an act of worship in gratitude to God when the collection of such tithes and offerings is hidden and finds no place in the Liturgy? Have you ever heard it said, “out of sight, out of mind”? In my opinion, we need to give in the Divine Liturgy visibly and physically as a part of the “work of the people,” an act of worship to the living God.
Not only will God take care of our parish if we commit ourselves to this spiritual discipline, but we will also be able to take care of our Mother, the Church on the Archdiocese level, with the overflow of God’s blessing. Is it not appropriate that as our mother (the Archdiocese) cares for our spiritual nurture, we would in turn, care for her material needs? She is our mother.
Shall we get down to brass tacks? Father Peter Gillquist of blessed memory was once asked, “Should I tithe on my gross income or my net income?” Fr. Peter responded, “Which one do you want God to bless?” Enough said.
Maybe beginning to tithe ten percent is just too big of a leap. If so, why not get there with baby steps? What if I were to commit to a plan to tithe one percent this month, two percent next month, three percent the following month, and so on, until ten months later I was really tithing the whole ten percent? We can do this. Remember God’s promise. Remember the feeding of the five thousand. Remember this saving commandment and offer God’s own of God’s own in behalf of all and for all.